Artist Lecture Review: Leslie Flanagan (Jillian Fox)

Jillian Fox

ARTH 3539

Artist Lecture Review: Leslie Flanagan


Leslie Flanagan is an artist, vocalist, performer and a self-proclaimed sound sculptor. She uses microphones, speakers and voices to create her own instruments and music. Flanagan began the lecture by playing one of her own tracks for the audience so that we would get a sense of who she is. The track “Sleepy” was very soothing; it is all her voice and speaker feedback instruments, not singing any words, but just emitting sounds. She likes to play this track when introducing people to her work because it is one of the more simplistic parents of voice and speaker feedback, and you can really hear how she is working with these two different sounds. Next she introduces us to her background and how she got to where she is today.

Flanagan began working in sculpture, more specifically sculpting wood. She was passionate about building things with her hands and wood; she loved touching and shaping tangible things. Flanagan’s other side was singing and working with electronic music; she had always been a singer. This world was all sounds and she had always seen these sounds as sculptural media. To her, both of these worlds were the same and they could be united to create something new and tangible, the thing she loved most.

She combined these worlds by starting to work with voices, speakers and noise, her main sculptural materials. Flanagan attended NYU telecommunications school for her graduate degree. There she started working with electricity by building circuits.  She discovered speaker feedback and how these noises were so raw and tangible, and learned how to manipulate them. To illustrate exactly what this “speaker feedback” that she created was, she played a video on the screen for the audience of her testing the amplifier, which was not assembled properly. She noted that this is her favorite video because she played with that amplifier for an entire day. The speaker mesmerized her because it was something physical; the electricity was moving and she could touch it. This was the tangible sound she had always wanted; both of her worlds were finally united.

Flanagan began playing around with different speakers all with different tones. She realized that she needed to create her own instrument. She built what she calls a “speaker synth,” with five different speakers, all ranging from low to high tones; this was her first speaker feedback instrument; it was an alive electric system. She showed us a video of the “speaker synth” displaying how she became compelled with how she touched the speakers and how she could interact with the instrument. Flanagan would write down all of these different descriptions of what the speakers sounded like. She realized what the next logical step for her would be; she wanted to separate the speakers and give them each their own voice, so she started building. She loved the sound and thought a lot about the amplification.

The video she showed us next was of her voice visualized, created by someone else. Flanagan reflected on it and thought it visualized the way she thought about different sounds, tangible and moving, as they were doing so on the screen. Her job as a performer, composer and instrumentalist was now to move the microphones around and manipulate the sounds further.  She juxtaposed the image of her visualized voice with a big open space of a church, showing us how the amplifications of sound can be visualized differently. Then she played a video of how she moves the microphone around to play these instruments; it was as if the microphone was a net scooping up all of the sounds.

Flanagan is more comfortable using the term “sculptor,” rather than “musician” to describe her artistic technique because she believes that she is visualizing the sound and making it happen. Eventually, she came out with an album called “Amplifications.” The tracks on the album were made with feedback mixed with voice and eventually other instruments; she was making electronic music by eliminating the computer altogether, it was with actual electricity. This is when she starts playing with natural reverb; you can really feel the sounds as she amplifies them and she describes them as “low, dirty sounds” and then begins layering her voice as it is getting higher and higher. When she performs with the speakers, she thinks of them as different voices. In all of her performances, she wants the noise from her voice and from the speakers to be piled together to create a beautiful mass of sound.

I think the artist’s intention was exactly what she managed to do; she wanted to touch and mold sounds just as she learned to sculpt wood. She used speaker feedback, her own voice, and microphones to make these sounds physical and tangible. I have never thought about sounds this way before, but her work effectively made me see them in a new light. The most interesting thing to me was that her mind even thought about something as intangible as sound this way. She makes her work in the moment and lets her intuition combine her two worlds in a way that I have never seen or heard of before.

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